The Heart of the Mouth of the South

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I remember once winning a team game of Trivial Pursuit because Jamie knew that two-time America’s Cup winner Ted Turner was nicknamed the Mouth of the South. He had read a biography of him but I never knew much about Mr. Turner beyond his ownership of the Atlanta Braves and Superstation TBS and that he was a marketing genius. (TBS broadcast its shows at five minutes past the hour, ensuring that each show received its own line in TV Guide.)

I hadn’t really thought about Mr. Turner in years until the other day when I read that he is suffering with Lewy body dementia, a disease that leaves him tired and forgetful. Described as “a mild case of what people have as Alzheimer’s,” this made me sad, as Ted Turner was incredibly kind to me on one of the worst days of my life.

My grad school friend Jonathan Levin was murdered in May 1997 just a few years after we left NYU. He was tortured then shot execution-style by one of his former students who wanted to rob him. The window of time between the discovery of Jon’s body and his funeral was jammed with shrieking headlines and jangling telephones as the story dominated the national news, due to Jon’s personal relationship with media power (his father was Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner Inc.) and because it checked most of the significant New York City crime story boxes – black on white coupled with class disparity combined with the overarching randomness of how lives cross paths in New York.

The day of the funeral dawned hot and humid. I was thinking and feeling a panoply of things as I showered and dressed in a black and white silk Chanel suit and black stiletto pumps. I had attended funerals before but they had all been low-key, family affairs.   Judging by the news coverage of the crime, I expected this, the penultimate act of the drama, to be pandemonium.

And it was. The blocks surrounding Park Avenue Synagogue were closed to traffic so we explained to the NYPD officer manning the barricades why we wanted to drive there. Noting our formal attire, my red nose, and the damp, balled Kleenex surrounding me on the car seat and carpet, he waved us through. A dark-suited employee of the funeral home then approached Jamie and handed him a placard through the open window and told us to put it on the dashboard. If it weren’t visible we would not be permitted to join the funeral procession from the synagogue to the cemetery on Long Island.

When we were within a block of the temple, another funeral employee approached and motioned for us to exit the car, explaining that we needed to walk from here. He seemed to be explaining something to Jamie but I wasn’t listening. It was too crowded and far too noisy. Mourners from every aspect of Jon’s life thronged the wide sidewalks and spilled into the street. The nation’s media elite huddled together near small clusters of people my age. Dozens of wailing teenagers hugged one another while more photographers than I had seen anywhere except the Academy Awards snapped frantically at all of us.

Clutching hands we walked toward the surging crowd tentatively, unsure where to go. Another funeral employee approached us and, after determining our relationship to Jon, directed us to an area of the sidewalk that appeared to be reserved for graduate school friends because immediately I saw Rachel, Patti, and a few other former classmates.

The entire event ran with the precision of a military maneuver. Friends from each segment of Jon’s life were catalogued and ushered into the cool building in a particular order and seated together in one location. I have no idea how the social status of each group was determined but somehow Jamie and I ended up next to Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.

After wiping my eyes with a tissue, I poked Jamie. “You know if Jon could lift the lid of that coffin and look around he’d be embarrassed at all this fuss. And when he caught sight of our seat mates, he say, ‘Holy shit! Jane Fonda is at my funeral!’” Jamie stifled a snicker as the cantor began his song and Jon’s family started their long and sorrowful progress to the front of the church. The siblings and step-siblings clung to one another so tightly that they seemed to move as one undulating entity. Carol’s face was ashen but her head was high. Keening in agony, Jerry staggered, leaning on his bodyguards for support. Filled with my own anguish, I barely noticed the service.

Exiting afterward the hot sunshine seemed almost cleansing after the grimness of the sacrament. More dark-clad factotum led us to our car and instructed us to observe the traffic patterns carefully and not become disconnected from the procession as we would probably be unable to find the cemetery on our own. Pointed north on Park Avenue, Jamie steered his car into place and soon we were following the screaming sirens of the NYPD as it escorted us to the city limits.

Eventually, the long, sad, parade turned right through enormous wrought iron gates into a cemetery. Regretting my shoe choice, I stumbled over the dry and clumpy ground to the graveside.   While much of what the rabbi said that day has receded into the mists of my memory, I do remember his calling upon each of us to toss a shovelful of soil onto the coffin as a way of sharing the labor and saying a final goodbye to the corporeal remains of Jon, but to do so holding the spade backward so we never forget the unnaturalness of the act.

Jamie and I joined the line snaking forward listlessly. Funeral home employees handed a series of shovels to mourners as they approached and soon Jamie and I were separated and pushed to opposite sides of the grave. Crying so hard I could barely see and feeling rather than seeing the wooden handle shoved into my hand, I approached the mound of dirt trepidatiously. Time after time I attempted to dig a bit onto the curved head of the shovel but I couldn’t make it work. Suddenly, standing in the burning sun in a pencil skirt and five inch heels while clutching an uncooperative garden implement seemed like the nadir of my life. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friend properly. I began to wail and if I could have handed the spade to the next person without looking like a bigger fool I would have done so. Staring shamefacedly through my tears at the mound of dirt in front of me, I realized that two indistinct but shiny cowboy boots had appeared next to my pointy toes. A gentle baritone wafted into my ear. “Let me help you.”

Two strong arms went around mine and guided them to the dirt, gracefully scooping a large portion, and then helped me toss it into the grave. That finally over, I flung the shovel and stumbled to the safety of the pavement where I could nurse my humiliation in private.

I felt Jamie’s presence and, looking up, blew my nose into an already-sodden Kleenex. “Well, that didn’t go well,” I muttered. “I feel like an idiot.”

Jamie cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because I couldn’t make the damned dirt stay on the shovel.”

“No one could. That’s the point of the exercise.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “You did.”

He shrugged. “Not much. No one got very much.”

“That man who helped me did. He was really strong and knew what he was doing.” I blew my nose again.

“Do you know who helped you?”

Digging in my handbag for Kleenex I shook my head. “Some guy wearing cowboy boots. That’s all I saw.”

“It was Ted Turner.”

My head snapped up. “Really?”

Jamie nodded. “Yup. He owns a pretty big ranch so I guess he has had some shoveling experience.”

It wasn’t his shoveling ability that impressed me. It was his kindness to an emotionally shattered young woman at one of the most horrible moments of her life.

I have never again met Ted Turner; I have never even seen him except in magazines and Internet news stories. I doubt he thought twice about what he did that day, but it has remained with me forever.

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